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Lady Jessie Mary Street (1889–1970)

by Heather Radi

This article was published:

Jessie Street, by Falk Studios, 1930s

Jessie Street, by Falk Studios, 1930s

National Library of Australia, 23371692

Jessie Mary Grey Street (1889-1970), feminist, was born on 18 April 1889 at Ranchi, Bihar, India, eldest of three children of Charles Alfred Gordon Lillingston, civil servant, and his wife Mabel Harriet, sixth daughter of Edward David Stewart Ogilvie of Yulgilbar station, near Grafton, New South Wales. When Mabel inherited Yulgilbar in 1896, Lillingston resigned from the Indian Civil Service to take up residence there. Jessie began her formal education with a governess. In 1904-06 she attended Wycombe Abbey School, Buckinghamshire, England. She matriculated by private study and enrolled in arts at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1911), where she lived at Women's College (1908) and also met her future husband.

Captain of the university women's hockey team, Jessie attended the inaugural meeting (1908) of the New South Wales Ladies' Hockey Association and played in its first interstate match (1909)—against Victoria. She was a founding member (1910) and president (1925-26) of Sydney University Women's Sports Association. With her parents, she visited Europe in 1911 and again in 1914. She worked in London as a volunteer at Bishop Creighton House, a Church of England settlement, and for the New York Protective and Probation Association at Waverley House, a reception centre for young women arrested as prostitutes. Back in Sydney, she married (Sir) Kenneth Street on 10 February 1916 at St John's Church of England, Darlinghurst; he was a barrister who subsequently became chief justice of New South Wales. They were to have four children, the youngest born in 1926.

In 1920 Jessie was secretary of the National Council of Women of New South Wales. She planned to liven up interest in the council's work by calling elections rather than co-opting office-bearers, but met opposition and resigned. From 1921 to 1950 she was a councillor of Women's College, as was her father-in-law in 1917-34. She became an executive-member of the Feminist Club and briefly its president (1929). When she invited the Women Voters Association, the Women's Service Guild and the Women's League to join with the Feminist Club to form the United Associations (later United Associations of Women) some club members objected and she resigned.

Street was elected president of the U.A. in 1930. She held that office on and off until 1950, standing down from time to time to allow other women the experience. The U.A. became the New South Wales branch of the Australian Federation of Women Voters, which had been founded by Bessie Rischbieth in 1921 to give women a voice nationally and internationally. Rischbieth was Australia's leading feminist, and mentor to Street. She confided her plans for the A.F.W.V., suggested issues for action, used Street to interview ministers, and arranged for her to meet prominent overseas feminists. The A.F.W.V.'s journal, Dawn, was well established, and a useful medium for U.A. publicity.

The overriding objective of the A.F.W.W. and its affiliates was 'real equality' of status and opportunity—an end to discrimination against women in the workplace, in law, or in appointment to public office, as a consequence of marriage or motherhood. The welfare of children and the promotion of international peace were associated aims. The strategy of post-suffrage international feminism, which Rischbieth had helped to develop, was to mobilize nationally and internationally to bring pressure on government, both directly, and indirectly through the League of Nations.

In Geneva in 1930 Street linked up with the British Commonwealth League, joined a delegation seeking equal nationality rights for married women, addressed the Open Door International for the Economic Emancipation of the Woman Worker on the 'Iniquity of the Australian Basic Wage', and led a 'spontaneous' deputation to the director of the International Labour Organization. The Open Door worked for the repeal of all legislation and regulations that set special conditions for employing women, effectively excluding them from certain jobs and most trades. Street became vice-chairman of Equal Rights International. At home, she called on the government to respond positively to the League of Nations' resolution that had referred the Pan-American Equal Rights Treaty to member nations. She appealed (unsuccessfully) for the inclusion of an 'equal rights' clause in amendments to the Australian Constitution, put forward in 1944. Continuing to work with international feminism, she publicized its work when she was in Australia and renewed contact overseas in 1938, 1945 and later years.

The U.A. co-operated with other organizations in campaigns for equal guardianship rights, divorce law reform, the right of a married woman to retain her nationality and to establish separate domicile, the appointment of women to public office and to jury service, and the election of women to parliament. The methods were proven—public meetings, lectures, conferences, letters to editors and politicians, radio talks, deputations to ministers and public appeals. Throughout history, Street wrote, 'vital changes of policy have been brought about by moral pressure'. The U.A. published numerous leaflets and pamphlets, including three written by Street—on equal pay, child endowment and woman as homemaker.

A woman's right to economic independence was the cause Street made especially her own. It encompassed a right to income for married women, a right to paid employment regardless of marital status, a right to compete alongside men in the labour market, equal pay, and just remuneration of skills. She ran a long and ultimately successful campaign against the Married Women Teachers' and Lecturers' Dismissal Act (1932, repealed 1947), protested strongly at the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland's proposal (1935) to deny work to married women, and objected to their dismissal by the Sydney County Council (1937) and the Commonwealth Public Service (postwar). She lobbied for child endowment to be paid to mothers (1941) and, without success, for a wife's right to an allowance: a wife who left an unsatisfactory husband could claim maintenance, so if she remained with him it was 'only fair' that she be 'legally entitled to the money for her maintenance'. In 1932 Street had devised an elaborate national insurance scheme, with provision for marriage endowment and child endowment.

Since slavery was abolished, all men were entitled to sell their labour at the highest price, but women were denied this right, which, Street stated, 'is the very foundation of human liberty'. Was it fair that a man with private income could claim a job while married women were refused employment? Regulations excluding women from certain work (for example with heavy machinery) were also unjust. Industrial safety was as much a concern for men as for women. To enjoy the right to work, women needed access to family planning. Street had started the short-lived Social Hygiene Association in 1916 to promote sex education. Later, through the Racial Hygiene Association of New South Wales, she was involved in setting up the first contraceptive clinic in Sydney (1933).

Street argued that equal pay was just, and would eliminate the pool of cheap female labour which 'continually menaces the employment of men and the standards of living of all workers'. This was especially so where technology was changing the nature of work. The U.A. briefed counsel to appear in equal-pay cases brought by the Federated Clerks' Union of Australia and the Shop Assistants' Union of New South Wales. As a foundation affiliate (1937) of the Council of Action for Equal Pay, the U.A. continued to co-operate with the unions, despite disagreement on the tactic of phasing in equal pay. In a major campaign in 1940, with support from twenty organizations, the U.A. briefed Nerida Cohen to intervene in the basic-wage inquiry. In the sequel, Street secured a commitment from a number of unions to make applications for equal pay, influencing the Australasian Council of Trade Unions' endorsement of equal pay in 1942. The substantial result was the creation of the Women's Employment Board that set wage rates for women war-workers at 60 to 100 per cent of male rates.

That women should be properly rewarded for skill was another of Street's concerns. In 1923 she had established the House Service Co. to supply casual domestic service to approved clients. An associated Home Training Institute (1927-35) contracted with employers to release full-time employees (untrained young women) for domestic science classes and for afternoon recreation. Street expected the conferral of diplomas to raise the status and remuneration of domestic servants, and she arranged afternoon recreation to counter loneliness. She helped other groups—a co-operative of unemployed women who produced vegetables, eggs and flowers (1932-34), a union which obtained the first industrial award for nurses (1936), and women contesting parliamentary elections. The conference on essential social services (1934) was intended to bring professionally trained social workers to the notice of potential employers. When only one woman was included in the team for the 1936 Olympic Games, Street ran a campaign for additional selections.

The Street family were foundation members of the New South Wales branch of the League of Nations Union. As the failures of the league became more apparent in the 1930s, the U.A. affiliated with the State branch of the International Peace Campaign. Jessie Street visited the Soviet Union, at the invitation of the Society for Cultural Relations with the U.S.S.R., when she took her younger daughter to Europe in 1938. After some weeks in the Soviet Union, she was satisfied that Russian women 'could enter any occupation under conditions of equality'. In Vienna she was deeply saddened by seeing the way that Nazis treated Jews. An advocate for the removal of restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, and for an increased intake of Jewish refugees to Australia, she was to serve on the Aliens Classification and Advisory Committee in 1944 and later on the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council.

Jessie Street had joined the Australian Labor Party in 1939, convinced that the organized labour movement promoted much needed reforms. In 1943 she failed to obtain pre-selection for the House of Representatives seat of Eden-Monaro (which the A.L.P. won), but was endorsed for Wentworth, which she lost after distribution of preferences. In 1946 she was again defeated for Wentworth.

Three causes especially engaged her during World War II. One was the infringement of the civil liberties of women suspected of having sexual relations with servicemen and of women who were anonymously accused of suffering from venereal disease: under National Security Regulations, they were liable to summary arrest, compulsory examination and incarceration if found venereally infected. Another was aid for Russia. Street was president (from 1939) of the Sydney branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the U.S.S.R. Following Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, she mobilized and chaired the high-powered Russian Medical Aid and Comforts Committee; when war with Japan shifted priorities for medicines, she organized the 'Sheepskins for Russia' Appeal. Her third wartime endeavour was to mobilize women behind a national programme for reconstruction. She convened the Australian Women's Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace which approved the Australian Woman's Charter (1943), a detailed programme of reforms for incorporation in government postwar planning. Over ninety organizations and all States were represented. To bring together so wide a body of support was an end she had in mind when she wrote in 1934 that women must organize. 'The vote is respected much more than justice and liberty'. By 1943 Jessie Street had become Australia's leading feminist. She financed the publication of the Australian Women's Digest (1944-47), a forum for discussion of charter reforms and the reporting of other news, and gave her money generously to good causes.

In 1945 Street was the only female adviser in the Australian delegation to the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco, United States of America. In co-operation with other women, she secured the insertion of the word 'sex' in the clause 'without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion' wherever it occurs in the Charter of the United Nations. The women canvassed widely for Article 8 which acknowledges the eligibility of 'men and women' to participate 'in any capacity and under conditions of equality' in the principal and subsidiary organs of the United Nations. 'Where the rules are silent', Street said, 'women are not usually considered'. She believed that the lobbying for Article 8 generated the favourable reception of Bertha Lutz's motion that the U.N. Economic and Social Council establish a commission on the status of women with a special charge to investigate discrimination. Street was Australia's first representative (1947-48) on this commission, and its vice-president. By then the Cold War had changed the climate for reform. Her intention had been for the commission to scrutinize the work of all U.N. bodies, but it was inadequately staffed and limited in its times of meetings. Her proposal for nationally based committees to support its work was endorsed, and she travelled around Australia to establish a network of committees.

Street was never attracted to, nor a member of, any communist party. After leaving San Francisco, she toured devastated Europe and was a guest of the Soviet Union, a nation which, she believed, had suffered too much destruction and loss of life to want another war. In working for better understanding of the Soviet Union, she saw herself as helping to promote peace. She was president (from 1946) of the Australian Russian Society. In Paris she clashed 'openly and bitterly' with Rischbieth at the congress of the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship. In Sydney, she was labelled a 'Red' in a smear campaign. The second Australian Woman's Charter Conference (1946) became the occasion for sustained questioning of Street's claim to national leadership. The rift developing in the women's movement was the result in part of Street's abandonment of the strategy of non-party politics, but it was also profoundly influenced by Cold War fears.

Standing for the new Federal seat of Phillip in 1949 as an Independent Labour candidate, Street polled less than 6 per cent of the vote. She had been overseas for much of 1948, and come home via India and Japan. Seeing Hiroshima was among the 'most unforgettable' of her experiences. She became deeply committed to banning nuclear weapons. As president of the New South Wales Peace Council, she invited Dr Hewlett Johnson, the 'Red Dean' of Canterbury, to the first postwar Congress of the Australian Peace Council in 1950. Refused the use of Sydney Town Hall, she moved the conference to Melbourne. She went to England that year to help the British Peace Council to organize a world peace congress at Sheffield, but it was eventually held in Warsaw because of difficulties with visas.

On becoming an executive-member of the World Peace Council, Street established her residence in London. She travelled constantly, to peace meetings and conferences, to report on United Nations meetings for various Australian publications, and to visit old U.A. associates. She rejoined feminist friends in the British Commonwealth League, the Six Point Group, and the World Women's Party. The British Anti-Slavery Society appointed her to its executive and, at its request, she returned to Sydney in 1956 to report on the situation of Aboriginal Australians.

National responsibility for the 'care' of Aborigines had been A.F.W.V. policy from 1933. It was also the first plank in policy proposals for Aborigines in the Australian Woman's Charter. Responding to Aboriginal protest, the U.A. recommended the appointment of a woman and an Aborigine to the Aborigines Welfare Board. In 1956 Street urged Pearl Gibbs to start the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship. Street thought that the support of a national Aboriginal organization would 'help considerably' if her report were to be forwarded to the United Nations. Advised by Christian Jollie Smith, she drafted an amendment to the Australian Constitution to remove discriminatory references to Aborigines and suggested that the fellowship make it the focus of its first meeting in the Sydney Town Hall. As she travelled interstate collecting information for her report, she met Aboriginal leaders, to whom she explained the constitutional proposals and the importance of national organization. The Anti-Slavery Society decided against sending her report to the United Nations, but her visit had significant consequences. The Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement (Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders) was formed in 1958 and her suggested amendments to the Constitution were carried in the 1967 referendum.

Street resumed her work for peace. In 1960 she returned to Australia and began writing her memoirs. A first volume was published as Truth or Repose (1966), the second abandoned. When Jessie next travelled, it was mainly to see friends. Though often apart, husband and wife remained affectionate companions. He was a daily visitor in her final months in the Scottish Hospital. (Lady) Jessie Street (her preferred use of title) died on 2 July 1970 at Paddington and was cremated. Her husband, and their two daughters and two sons survived her. She bequeathed $10,000 to the Australia-Soviet Friendship Society and the bulk of her estate to her children.

Following celebrations for her centenary in 1989, the Jessie Street Trust was formed to provide financial assistance to projects in the areas of her main public activities. The Jessie Street National Women's Library was also established in Sydney. The library holds a portrait (1929) by Jerrold Nathan in which Jessie is bedecked in finery, but she commonly wore a tailored suit, simple blouse, cameo brooch and comfortable shoes. Of medium build, with her brown hair cut short for convenience, she had a warm, pleasant appearance and demeanour. Jessie could charm and cheer, and give and win loyalty. She had a talent for friendship and for persuading others to fight for justice.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Sekuless, Jessie Street (Brisb, 1978)
  • W. Mitchell, 50 Years of Feminist Achievement (Syd, 1979?)
  • M. Bevege et al (eds), Worth Her Salt (Syd, 1982)
  • H. Radi (ed), Jessie Street (Syd, 1990)
  • M. Lake, Getting Equal (Syd, 1999)
  • Jessie Street papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Bessie Rischbieth papers (National Library of Australia)
  • United Assns of Women papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • A6119, items 360-63 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Street, Lady Jessie Mary (1889–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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